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Universal design in education

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Universal design in education, more commonly referred to as universal design for learning (UDL), is an approach to designing a curriculum that provides all students with equal opportunities to learn. Students bring a variety of skills, abilities, needs, interests, backgrounds, and learning styles to the classroom. A curriculum that does not address this diversity may present learning barriers as students attempt, with varying levels of success, to fit their individual styles, skills, and abilities to the curriculum. [1]

As defined by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, UDL:

  • Provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and the ways students are engaged; and
  • Reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient. [2]

To meet these objectives, a curriculum should be based around three key UDL principles:

  • Multiple means of representation to give students options for gaining information and knowledge.
  • Multiple means of action and expression to provide students with options for demonstrating their knowledge.
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into students' interests and increase motivation. [3]


In 1984, an increase in digital technologies (Apple Macintosh computer among others) and discussions of school reform prompted a small group of hospital-based education researchers and clinicians to establish the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST. CAST explored ways to use computer technology to improve education for all students, especially those with disabilities. The concept of UDL came from the findings of CAST researchers who tested and refined education principles. The overarching goal was to use flexible methods and materials to customize education for each student.[3]


Building from the main principles of UDL, CAST has issued nine guidelines, three for each principle, to ensure that each guideline is fully addressed.

Multiple Means of Representation

Students differ in the ways they perceive and comprehend the information presented to them. Examples include sensory disabilities (e.g. blindness or deafness), learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia), language or cultural differences, and different learning styles (e.g. visual vs auditory learning).

  • Guideline 1: Provide options for perception
Provide the same information through different sensory modalities (e.g. vision, hearing, or touch) and in a format that can be adjusted (e.g. text that can be enlarged, sounds that can be amplified).
  • Guideline 2: Provide options for language and symbols
Provide alternative representations of information (e.g. graphs, images, different wording).
  • Guideline 3: Provide options for comprehension
Integrate new information with background knowledge. Provide explicit cues or prompts that highlight key concepts and connections. Provide ample feedback to guide learning. [4]

Multiple Means of Expression

Students approach learning tasks and demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. Examples include students with motor disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy), students who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (e.g. executive function disorders, ADHD) and those who have language barriers. Some students also express themselves better in writing versus orally, and vice versa.

  • Guideline 4: Provide options for physical action
Provide alternative means for response, selection, navigation through information (e.g. voice activation instead of joystick, keyboard) and composition for students with differing motor capacity and dexterity.
  • Guideline 5: Provide options for expressive skills and fluency
Provide alternative modalities for expression to allow students to increase their skills in weak areas and introduce all students to the full range of media. Modes of expression may include painting, writing, drawing and illustration, music, film and video. Also, provide tools for composition and problem solving such as spell checkers, grammar checkers, and calculators.
  • Guideline 6: Provide options for executive functions
Guide effective goal setting, planning, and strategy development. Provide tools and prompts to enhance organizational skills (e.g. planners, checklists). [5]

Multiple Means of Engagement

Some students are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty, while others prefer a strict routine.

  • Guideline 7: Provide options for recruiting interest
Give choices and opportunities for personal control. Make information relevant and valuable to their interests and goals. Reduce potential distractions in order to increase concentration.
  • Guideline 8: Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence
Provide reminders throughout longer projects that reiterate both the overall goal and its value. Provide a range of challenges and possible supports for students of different levels of proficiency. Foster communication, collaboration, and peer tutoring.
  • Guideline 9: Provide options for self-regulation
Encourage personal goal setting (e.g. avoiding frustration, controlling anxiety or anger). Provide models and feedback for self-regulation goals. Provide options for self-assessment and reflection. [6]

For more detailed descriptions of the guidelines and principles of UDL, the research behind UDL, and tips on how to implement UDL in the classroom, please go to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning (NCUDL) homepage at


  1. “What is UDL?” - Accessed December 10, 2009.
  2. “From the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008...” - Accessed December 10, 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Center for Applied Special Technology - Accessed December 10, 2009.
  4. “UDL Guidelines - Version 1.0: Principle I. Provide Options for Comprehension" - Accessed December 10, 2009.
  5. “UDL Guidelines - Version 1.0: Principle II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression" - Accessed December 10, 2009.
  6. “UDL Guidelines - Version 1.0: Principle III. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement" - Accessed December 10, 2009.